France’s momentary appearance on the world stage as a champion of free expression, after the execution of the beloved Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, made for a break in her relentless culture of repression of free speech, which she shares with most of Europe. Aside from a handful of exceptions—Charlie Hebdo’s Muhammad cartoons now being the most famous—official France and its media have for years done all that they could to prevent journalists, essayists, and fiction writers from questioning Islam and immigration policy, or drawing attention to the rising antisemitism and anti-Christian feeling that had driven so many French voters into the arms of the once-out-of-bounds National Front. Just the month before, Eric Zemmour, France’s most popular political commentator, had been fired by his major TV outlet and threatened with prosecution for inciting hatred. Targets for persecution ranged from the notorious to the recherché: Renaud Camus, an aesthete devoted to art, literature, his sensational diary, 20 volumes of it so far, and his eccentric political party of one, le Parti de l’Innocence. When he threw the featherweight of his party’s support to the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the 2012 presidential contest, his longtime publisher told Camus he would no longer publish his books.
The very issue Charlie Hebdo was preparing to print when it came under murderous assault on January 7 was to be an attack for his supposed Islamophobia on the current hate figure of the French left, the highbrow novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose new novel Submission was published on that dark day. Just days before, a journalist for France24, a government-owned TV channel, fretted about the novel, which describes a France of 2022 that elects a Muslim president: “The book’s publication could not come at a more sensitive time as France is currently undergoing a fierce debate on Islam and national identity.” A former friend, Sylvain Bourmeau, whose interview with Houellebecq in the Paris Review was widely published across Europe, announced to the readers of his blog that Submission “is dangerous: contributing like so many things, large and small, and always ugly, to make life in France a little more unpleasant for anyone with an Arab name or black skin.” (Critics, by the way, have noted that Submission is by no means dystopic, and that its imagined Islamic French state is presented as an attractive, humane place.) The Paris Review interview is a reeducation course for the novelist in racism, Islamophobia, and the correct way to view France. Bourmeau suggests to Houellebecq that perhaps it were best that his novel had never been written: “Have you asked yourself what the effect might be of a novel based on such a hypothesis? . . . You don’t think it will help reinforce the image of France . . . in which Islam hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles, like the most frightening thing of all?”
When something goes terribly wrong in France, its media elite tend to blame it on someone who has said the wrong thing. After an at-first-unknown shooter attacked a Jewish day school in Toulouse in 2012, killing three children and a teacher-parent, Bernard-Henri Lévy knew whom to blame: the extreme right, as if the killer would inevitably turn out to be a neo-Nazi, instead of the jihadist he in fact was:
A word of advice to the pyromaniacs of the defense of “national identity,” perceived as a closed entity, nervous and jittery, feeding on resentment and hatred: it is the social contract that is the victim of assassination in a bloodbath of this kind; it is the very foundation of our common existence that vacillates and gives way when such madness explodes. There can be no worse blow to French culture, to the soul of our country, its history and, when all is said and done, its grandeur than racism and, today, antisemitism.
A skinhead National Front member may not have killed the Jewish children, but for the glory of France you must hold your tongue.